A supertaster is a person who tastes certain flavors and foods more strongly than other people.
The human tongue is wrapped in taste buds (fungiform papillae). The small, mushroom-shaped bumps are covered with taste receptors that bind to the molecules from your food and help tell your brain what you’re eating.
Some people have more of these taste buds and receptors, so their perception of flavor is stronger than the average person. They are known as supertasters. Supertasters are particularly sensitive to bitter flavors in foods such as broccoli, spinach, coffee, beer, and chocolate.
Supertasters are born with this ability. Indeed, research suggests a person’s genes may be responsible for their supertasting abilities.
Scientists believe most supertasters have the gene TAS2R38, which increases bitterness perception. The gene makes supertasters sensitive to bitter flavors in all foods and drinks. People with this gene are particularly sensitive to a chemical called 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP).
About 25 percent of the population qualifies as supertasters. Women are more likely to be supertasters than men.
On the opposite end of the taste spectrum, non-tasters have fewer taste buds than the average person. Foods taste less flavorful and vibrant to these individuals, who make up about a quarter of the population.
The largest group, however, is medium or average tasters. They are the remaining half of the population.
Taste buds can detect five primary flavors:
For supertasters, the fungiform papillae pick up bitter flavors more easily. The more sensitive taste buds are, the more intense the flavors may be.
Supertasters may have more, stronger taste buds
Supertasting abilities may be the result of tongues that are more densely crowded with taste buds, or fungiform papillae.
You might see a couple statistics on other websites that define supertasters as having 35 to 60 taste buds in a 6-millimeter round section of the tongue — about the size of a pencil eraser — while average tasters have about 15 to 35, and non-tasters have 15 or fewer in the same space.
While we couldn’t find scientific research to support those stats specifically, there is some evidence to suggest that supertasters do have
Supertasters may be picky eaters
Supertasters may seem like picky eaters. They may even have a lengthy list of foods they won’t eat simply because the food is so unpleasant.
Indeed, certain foods aren’t going to find their way into a supertaster’s grocery cart, such as:
- Brussels sprouts
Supertasters may try to cover up bitter flavors with other foods
To compensate for any overwhelming bitterness, supertasters may add salt, fat, or sugar to foods. These foods can mask bitterness.
However, research is unclear which of these foods supertasters really prefer. Some supertasters steer clear of sweet or fatty foods because these flavors may also be heightened as a result of their dense, extra-sensitive taste buds. That makes some foods unpalatable, even if they aren’t bitter.
Supertasters often eat excess salt
Salt does successfully mask bitter flavors, so supertasters may keep the shaker handy at mealtime.
For example, supertasters may add salt to grapefruit. They may also add increasingly high amounts of salt to salad dressings in an attempt to cover bitterness in leafy greens.
Supertasters often avoid alcohol or smoking
Even things that have a bittersweet balance to some people may be too strong for supertasters. Foods like grapefruit, beer, and hard liquor may be in the no-go territory for supertasters. The bitter flavors picked up by the tongue’s taste buds are far too overpowering to enjoy. Dry or oaked wines can be off limits, too.
For some supertasters, cigarettes and cigars aren’t enjoyable. Tobacco and additives can leave a bitter flavor behind, which may deter supertasters.
The term supertaster is quite fun. After all, not just anyone can claim their tongue is exceedingly great at tasting food. However, being a supertaster also comes with some drawbacks.
Pros of being a supertaster:
- May weigh less than average or non-tasters. That’s because supertasters often avoid sugary, fatty foods that are often packed with calories. These flavors can be too overwhelming and unenjoyable, just like bitter flavors.
- Are less likely to drink and smoke. The bittersweet flavors of beer and alcohol are often too bitter for supertasters. Plus, the flavor of smoke and tobacco can be too harsh, too.
Cons of being a supertaster
- Eat few healthy vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower, are very healthy. Supertasters often avoid them, however, because of their bitter flavors. This can lead to vitamin deficiencies.
- May be at a higher risk for colon cancer. The cruciferous vegetables they can’t tolerate are important for digestive health and helping lower the risk of certain cancers. People who don’t eat them may have more colon polyps and higher cancer risks.
- May have an increased risk for heart disease. Salt masks bitter flavors, so supertasters tend to use it on many foods. Too much salt, however, can cause health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease.
- May be picky eaters. Foods that are too bitter just aren’t pleasant. That limits the number of foods many supertasters will eat.
Supertasters have a lot in common, so this quick quiz could help you determine if your tongue has super powers, or if it’s just average. (Remember: Most people are average, so don’t fret if your taste buds are just typical.)
Could you be a supertaster?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, you could be a supertaster:
- Do you find certain vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale to be too bitter?
- Do you hate the bitterness of coffee or tea?
- Do you find high-fat or high-sugar foods to be unpalatable?
- Do you shy away from spicy foods?
- Do you consider yourself a picky eater?
- Do you find alcohol, like hard liquor or beer, to be too bitter to drink?
There is no true diagnostic test for supertasters. If you think your tongue is ultrasensitive, you know best. At the very least, potentially being a supertaster is a fun topic for a cocktail party.
Another way to determine if you may be a supertaster is to count the number of taste buds you have. This test is really just a fun experiment, and its accuracy has been disputed in the scientific community.
If you go with the assumption that people with 35 to 60 papillae in a 6-millimeter circle may be supertasters, this test will theoretically help you see how you measure up.
It isn’t foolproof, however. Taste buds have to be active to taste flavors. If you have inactive taste buds, you may not be a supertaster, even if you have extra taste buds.
- Use a hole punch to make a hole in a small piece of paper (about 6 millimeters).
- Drop blue food dye on your tongue. The dye makes distinguishing between your tongue and the taste buds easier.
- Hold the paper over a portion of the dyed tongue.
- Count the number of visible papillae.
If you suspect your child is a supertaster because they won’t come near anything green, don’t fret. Children often grow out of sensitivity, even if they aren’t real supertasters.
As we age, we lose taste buds, and what remains becomes less sensitive. That makes bitter or unpleasant flavors less potent. Children who once shed tears over broccoli may soon embrace it.
This is true even for supertasters. They lose some sensitivity and taste buds, too. However, because they’re starting with a higher number, even their lower number may still be very high. Though, even just a few notches down in tasting abilities may make some foods more palatable.
If your kid won’t come into the room when Brussels sprouts, kale, or spinach are on the menu, there are ways to get healthy vegetables into their belly without a battle.
- Talk to a registered dietitian. These nutrition experts can do a taste survey to gauge which vegetables may be more palatable for your kid. They can also help introduce new things you may not have considered.
- Focus on vegetables that don’t cause a fight. Green plants aren’t the only source of vitamins and minerals. Squash, sweet potatoes, and corn are also chock-full of good-for-you nutrients and may be more palatable.
- Add a little seasoning. Salt and sugar can mask the bitterness of some veggies. If a little sprinkle of sugar will help your child eat Brussels sprouts, embrace it.
Being a supertaster is a bit of fun trivia, but it can affect the way you eat, too. Many supertasters avoid healthful foods like kale, spinach, and radishes. Their naturally bitter flavors can be overpowering. Over a lifetime, this can lead to nutrient deficiencies and increased risks of some cancers.
Fortunately, however, supertasters have a leg up on people who struggle with a sweet tooth. Fatty, sugary foods can be too intense for supertasters, which means they steer clear. So many supertasters have a lower weight and fewer cravings for foods that are troublesome for the rest of us.
There is no need for treatment. Instead, people with a supercharged tongue just have to focus on eating techniques and foods that help them eat a variety of healthful foods while still avoiding the things that are just simply too unpleasant.